Slouching Towards A Budget

[ Posted Thursday, March 21st, 2024 – 16:20 UTC ]

Congress is -- finally -- about to finish the most basic of their constitutional duties: funding the federal government by passing a budget for the current fiscal year. This comes almost six months from when they were supposed to have achieved this feat (the federal fiscal year starts at the beginning of October). And what is happening on Capitol Hill right now should be familiar to anyone who knows how the process has worked in recent years -- a huge bill that wraps multiple individual spending bills together is released at the last possible minute, with no time for any floor debate or even for many people to dig through the enormous length of the bill, and with a deadline in sight tomorrow night at midnight that may or may not be met (although any partial government shutdown will likely be brief and happen over the weekend when its impacts would be minimal, at least). This is all pretty much par for the budgetary course, these days. Six months late is an outlier -- usually the budget is wrapped up (at the latest) by December or January -- but budgets nowadays are never passed on time.

I have railed against this ineptitude for years, since California used to have its own state-level government shutdown problems with late budgets, but the people changed all of that by voting to deny the legislators their pay if the budget is ever late (and barring them from awarding themselves back pay, too). This has worked wonders -- our budgets now pass on time, every time. But doing the same for the U.S. Congress would require a constitutional amendment, so it's not likely to happen any time soon (which is a shame, because it works so well -- "No budget? No pay!").

This year's budget battles have been more brutal than most, at least in the Republican-led House of Representatives. The process led to the dethroning of a speaker for the first time in American history, and the current speaker seems to be on shaky ground right now so it could even wind up dethroning two speakers before the dust settles.

This wasn't how Republicans envisioned things when they took control of the House. They were going to fix the whole budget process by getting back to "regular order." This would mean passing each of the dozen appropriations bills in the relevant committees, passing them all (individually) on the House floor with time for debate and amendment votes, and then entering into negotiations with the Senate and hammering out a deal on each individual bill, which would then be voted on again in each chamber and be sent to President Joe Biden to sign. And all of this was supposed to happen on time -- no deadlines would be punted at all, period. On a purely conceptual level, it's hard not to agree that this is indeed the way things should happen in Congress.

Obviously, however, those plans now lie in tatters. The House did manage to pass some of the individual appropriations bills on purely party-line votes, but not all of them. And the process took far longer than planned, because Republicans could not get their own act together. The bills the House did pass were all completely dead on arrival in the Senate, because they had been larded up with all the most extreme rightwing poison pills you can imagine. The House refused to negotiate any of it with the Democrats who hold control in the Senate. So they hit deadline after deadline and only barely managed to pass continuing resolutions (punting the football each time) to avoid government shutdowns. The first of these took down Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The problem with all of the pie-in-the-sky regular-order idealism from Republicans is that they refused to admit the basic power-sharing reality of the situation. First, Republicans in the House had to be almost unanimous in agreement about each and every appropriations bill, since their plan was to pass them on party-line votes. Which proved impossible for some of the bills, and proved extremely difficult even for the ones they did manage to pass. The GOP hardliners (or "Chaos Caucus" as I prefer to call them) in the House refused to compromise on any of their demands with their own (more-moderate) Republican colleagues. It was their way or the highway, on everything. They wanted 100 percent of their demands met and refused to budge an inch even for their fellow Republicans.

If they weren't content to negotiate even within their own party, then it was no surprise that they weren't willing to negotiate with Senate Democrats or the White House over any of it either. They thought that bringing everything down to the wire would magically convince their political opponents to just throw in the towel and give them everything they demanded. This (of course) did not happen.

In the end, the budget will pass both chambers with bipartisan votes. This was always the way it was going to happen, whether the hardliner GOP members wanted to admit it or not. All the Chaos Caucus folks will vote "No," while the more-moderate Republicans will join with the Democrats to actually pass something. That's the way divided government in Washington works.

As I stated, I am sympathetic to the basic notion of returning to regular order. But what would have to change for it to actually work is that the House Republicans would have to face the reality of their situation and open negotiations with Democrats a lot earlier. This would mean telling the Chaos Caucus to go pound sand, while reaching out to Senate Democrats and the White House to see what will and will not be acceptable in the final deal. Republicans could have reached an impasse with their own members last summer and then the speaker could have told his hardliners that he was just going to go around their obstructionism and start the real budget negotiations with House Democrats. If Democrats had been brought into the equation early, then each of the House budget bills would have started as a compromise, meaning they wouldn't actually be considered dead on arrival in the Senate after the House passed them. The Senate Democrats would have sat down with Senate Republicans and put their own bills together (something they actually did get close to doing this year), and then they would have worked out all the differences with House negotiators.

Following this path would have increased the chances that bills could have been voted on in a timely manner, without bumping up against deadlines (government shutdowns, in other words). Bills could have been released with plenty of time for members to read them, and they could have even voted on amendments on the floor. All the hardliners would then vote against them while all the Republicans who do not represent ruby-red districts would work with Democrats to fulfill their basic constitutional duty. If a continuing resolution had been necessary, it would have been a short one while the final negotiations took place.

The problem, obviously, is the Republican hardliners' belief that if they just refuse to negotiate right up to the deadline then somehow Democrats will crumble and give them everything they want. The other big problem is that Republicans can very easily oust their own speaker and are quite willing to do so if any compromise is sought at any time before the last possible instant. This ties the speaker's hands in a big way. It's why all the negotiations go down to the wire over and over again (I've lost count of how many continuing resolutions it took this year... three?... four?... I'd have to check...). Each and every time, if the speaker had moved with great urgency right after a C.R. passed, then a compromise deal could have been struck with plenty of time for all his members to read and debate it.

But a Republican speaker can't do this. Because the more time he gives his own members to understand what is in the deal, the more time they have to nitpick little things contained in it and go ballistic on rightwing media (or social media). Only holding the deal back until the absolute last minute gives it any chance of passing without sparking a tsunami of MAGA outrage.

So while it would indeed be nice to see Congress return to regular order and pass budgets they way they are theoretically supposed to, until there is a change in the power dynamic in the Republican House it is never going to be possible. And just to be fair, Democrats also play this game to some extent when they are in charge of the House as well (Nancy Pelosi dropped many a budget omnibus bill on her members at the last possible moment, in other words). But for now, with a razor-thin Republican House majority and with some of them having a hair-trigger urge to depose their own speaker, nothing is going to change.

At this point -- sad to say -- we should all consider it a good thing that Congress actually is finally passing a full budget, since their other option was to punt the entire rest of the year (with a gigantic continuing resolution which would have covered everything up until this October). In other words, the bar is set about as low as can be imagined. Congress is finally doing its job... six months late... at the last minute... with the possibility of a short-term government shutdown... and maybe even with the House speaker facing a "motion to vacate the chair" vote. And that's me trying to be optimistic about it all.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Slouching Towards A Budget”

  1. [1] 
    Bleyd wrote:

    Looks like we may be headed towards another House Speakership fight. Sources reporting that MTG has filed a motion to vacate after the House passed the spending bill today, and I think she only needs maybe 2 or 3 other republicans to side with her for it go through.

  2. [2] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:


    That could be very interesting since Mike Gallagher just announced he is resigning early and Buck hinting there could be more. The GOP losing the majority in the middle of selecting a new speaker would be quite entertaining...

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